Form and Content
Silences is divided into two major parts of equal length: “Silences” and “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets. Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions.” Through essays, quotations, and comments, Tillie Olsen presents the history of both well-known and obscure literary figures, stressing how cultural injustices and inadequacies have deterred these and other individuals, especially women, from fulfilling their literary potential.
Part 1 consists of three essays. The first, “Silences in Literature,” was originally delivered from notes at a colloquium at the Radcliffe Institute in 1962, then edited from a taped transcription, and published in Harper’s Magazine in October, 1962. In it, Olsen discusses the various types of unnatural creative silences, the conditions for full functioning, and the results of inadequate time and energy.
The second essay in part 1, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century,” was first addressed to university literature teachers at a Modern Language Association Forum in 1971 and appeared in College English in October, 1972. Here, Olsen declares that in the twentieth century, for every four or five books written by a man, a woman writes one. Only one woman out of every twelve writers, however, receives recognition equivalent to that of her male peers. Why are so many more women than men silenced? Blaming history, attitudes, education, motherhood, the literary-critical establishment, and internalized literary gynophobia, she requests that teachers read, teach, criticize, and write about women writers, encouraging first-generation female writers so that gender equality will eventually result.
The final essay in part 1, “Rebecca Harding Davis: Her Life and Times,” appeared first in 1972 as an afterword for the Feminist Press reprint of Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861). Davis’ instant fame and acceptance by such figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson diminished significantly after she was married and had devoted her life to her family. Although she continued to write prolifically and profitably, she never gained her former literary...
(The entire section is 909 words.)